Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…
Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Myers
The Problem: How to Understand 1 John
The Keys to Understanding 1 John
1. Understand Gnosticism
2. Find the Purpose Statement
3. Use a Dictionary
4. Develop an Outline
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is so simple that anyone can understand it, yet at the same time, it is so complex that you could spend every minute of every day mining it's depths and never exhaust it's riches. It is always exhilarating to study some passage which you have studied a hundred times before and come away with something you never knew was there. One of the books of the Bible that perfectly illustrates this is the book of 1 John. 1 John is so simple that anybody can read it and come away with great truths. In fact, John wrote using such simple and basic Greek, that in Bible college, first year Greek students are given the assignment of translating 1 John. It was written with elementary Greek. It contains first grader Greek.
But don't let the simple Greek fool you - the book of 1 John is one of the most complex books in the New Testament. Written in the simplest Greek, it contains some of the most intricate truths. As a result, there are many problems to understanding 1 John.
The Problem: How to Understand 1 John
Bible and Greek scholars by the score have dashed themselves to pieces trying to teach 1 John. The only thing you have to do to see this is to pick up any five or six commentaries on the book of 1 John, and chances are, they will all teach something completely different. There is almost no unity or agreement on how to understand 1 John, or how to teach it. There is almost no agreement even on what 1 John is teaching, or even what his purpose is. There is definitely no agreement on how to apply it to our lives today. For example, it's a little hobby of mine to collect various outlines on 1 John. To date, I have collected at least 14 completely different outlines. And it's not just that the various authors and teachers use different words for the same points. These are 14 completely different outlines.
So just understand right from the beginning that I am not claiming to be an expert on 1 John. But I always believe in looking at things from all perspectives and that is why I have studied 1 John from as many different angles and viewpoints as I can. And over the years I have found that there are some truths which are of immense help in understanding 1 John. So rather than try to tear down the arguments of other teachers, rather than spending time on what the text doesn't say, I want to focus primarily tonight on what it does say and how to study 1 John for yourself.
There are four keys to understanding 1 John which, just like with correctly understanding every passage in the Bible, are all contextual keys. Rightly dividing the Word of truth demands that you always look at the historical, cultural and grammatical context. The first two keys come from looking at the historical/cultural context and they explain John's reason for writing. We will learn about the heresy he is trying to combat and that will in turn help us understand the purpose for John's letter. The third and fourth keys provide the grammatical context. These keys deal with correctly defining terms and understanding how these words form the overall structure and outline of the book of 1 John.
The Keys to Understanding 1 John
Before we dive into the four keys, however, I want to lay the basic groundwork. The author, or course is the Apostle John. John also wrote the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. And among all the disagreements about 1 John that are out there, I think everybody agrees that John was clearly writing to Christians. This comes out all over the book. They are Christians. Though John wrote his Gospel to tell unbelievers how to receive eternal life, John is clearly writing this letter to those who have received eternal life and telling them how to live the abundant life. John is writing to tell believers how to live the Christian life.
All of this comes out by looking at the four keys. Let's begin with the first one right away, the key of Gnosticism. To understand 1 John we must understand the heresy of Gnosticism.
1. Understand Gnosticism
At the time of John's writing, Gnosticism was just in the early stages of development. Gnosticism itself is almost impossible to understand because there were so many different varieties, but here is what holds true for all the different forms. First of all, it mixed Greek Alexandrian philosophy and Eastern Zoroastrian theology with the teachings of the Bible. From Greek Alexandrian philosophy, they taught that there is a barrier between God and the material world. God, as a spirit, does not and cannot actually do anything in the physical world. If He wants to do something, He has to operate through angels and demons. The souls of men are little pieces of God that want to get back to Him, but are trapped in this world and imprisoned by the flesh. In order to be "saved" we have to escape our flesh.
From Eastern Zoroastrian theology, they taught a form of dualism. Dualism is the belief that good and evil have always existed side by side throughout eternity and have always battled one another for dominance, but neither side will ever win. One of the reasons that neither side will ever win is because there is always some little bit of good in even the most evil being, and there is always some little bit of evil in the most good being. Have you seen the Ying-Yang? That is the symbol of dualism. In every good thing there is some evil, and in every evil thing there is some good.
So the basic beliefs are the complete separation between matter and spirit as borrowed from Alexandrian philosophy, as the dualism of good and evil as borrowed from Zoroastrian theology. Then they read and taught Scripture in light of this. What were some of the results? Well, for example, since all matter is evil, the being in Genesis 1 and 2 who created this world must also be evil. Gnosticism called Him the Demiurge. He is not the supreme deity, but is an evil being somewhere between God and man.
This has incredible ramifications. For example, since the being who created the world was actually evil, anybody who rebels against the creator is actually good. Like Adam and Eve. They become Gnostic heroes when they disobey the creator. Also like Cain. Cain goes against the creator's will and murders his brother, and since the body itself is evil, but instead is a hero because he went against the creator's will and in so doing, freed his brother from his fleshly prison. Take Christ as another example. If all matter is evil, then Christ couldn't really have come in the flesh. His flesh was just an illusion. And if he wasn’t here in the flesh, then he couldn't really have suffered in the flesh. His sufferings were unreal. Going off from their belief in the complete separation of spirit and matter, they taught that there was no connecting between our flesh and our spirit and so you could sin all you want in your flesh and it wouldn't affect your spirit at all.
All of this is just scratching the surface of the Gnostic belief system. And if it all sounds confusing to you, that's because it was intended to be confusing. When people accused them of being contradictory and confusing, the Gnostics would just say, "That's because you haven't been enlightened. You haven't been initiated into the deeper truths. You haven't received a fuller knowledge yet." So there was this big emphasis on receiving a deeper knowledge. And that is how they go their name. In Greek, one of the works for knowledge is gnosis. And so this emphasis on a deeper knowledge, on a deeper gnosis, caused them to be called Gnostics. So this is what John and many of the Christians at that time were trying to deal with. How do you tell somebody they are wrong when they just say that you don't understand because you haven't been blessed with a deeper knowledge? But John sets out to try to point out their errors anyway, and warn his Christian readers about their false teachings.
And so we read in places that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all (1:5). God is not mostly good with a little bit of evil. There is no sin in Him at all (3:5). When John writes that Christians do not sin (3:9), he is combating the Gnostic teaching that a Christian can sin all they want in the flesh and it won't affect them spiritually. When John talks about people who deny that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh (4:2), he is refuting this teaching that Jesus did not come in the flesh.
Anyway, all the way through the book, John is stating the case against Gnosticism, and so if you are going to understand John, you have to first have a basic understanding of what the Gnostics believed and taught. Any good Bible dictionary or encyclopedia can help you understand more of this.
2. Find the Purpose Statement
But the Gnostic heresy as background, we can know with certainty that one of John's main purposes in writing will be to show Christians how they can have fellowship with God without having a deeper knowledge. The Gnostics taught that God was distant and absent from this world, but John will show how Christian can walk with God day by day. John will want to show them that sin does affect us and that God is not evil. So it is not surprising that right away in 1 John, we read that John has seen, heard and touched Jesus Christ (1:1-2) - He really did come in the flesh! - and now John wants to tell his readers how they too can have fellowship with God (1:3).
The purpose of the book, I am certain, is found in 1 John 1:3. That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
John is saying look. I'm telling you how to fellowship with us. And we have fellowship with God and with Jesus Christ, so when you have fellowship with us, you have fellowship with God and Jesus also. This goal of fellowship is why John is writing the entire letter. He will show you that sin gets in the way of fellowship with God, and so we must confess our sins (1:5-11). John will explain how to have fellowship with other Christians, and how to have fellowship with Christ. He will warn about false teachers and false doctrines that only seek to destroy our fellowship. This theme of fellowship is the purpose of 1 John. It explains how to have fellowship with Christians, God and Jesus Christ.
Now, there are some who want to say that the purpose of 1 John is to provide tests of life so that you can see if you are saved or not. For example, one pastor and author says that 1 John contains 11 tests for how to know whether you are saved or not. He says there are 11 questions John wants his readers to ask themselves to see if you are saved. Here are the 11 questions this author pulls from 1 John. As I go through them, ask yourself if, according to these questions, you would be saved? Be brutally honest.
1. Are you enjoying fellowship with Christ and the Father? Do you have a desire to commune with Him? To pray, to know Him, to be with Him, to be in His presence? (1:2-3; 5:1-5)
2. Are you sensitive to sin in your life? (1:5-2:1)
3. Are you obedient to God's Word? (2:3-5)
4. Do you reject the world? (2:15-17)
5. Do you love Christ and eagerly await for His coming? Do you long for His coming? (3:1-3)
6. Do you see a decreasing pattern of sin in your life? (3:5-10)
7. Do you love other Christians? (2:9-11)
8. Do you experience answered prayer? (3:22)
9. Do you experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit (4:13)
10. Can you discern between spiritual truth and error? (4:1-3)
11. Have you been rejected for your faith (3:13)
Now, honestly, seriously, if those were the 11 tests by which you determined whether you are saved or not, how many of you are saved? I wouldn't be. I know my own heart. I know the lack of sensitivity to sin in my own life. I know that there are some Christians I do not love as I should. I know that only some of my prayers are answered. I know that I am not fully obedient to God's Word a lot of the time. I know that I have not been rejected for my faith as much as I probably could have been. I firmly believe that if all Christians are brutally honest with themselves, and these truly were the tests we used for determining whether we have eternal life or not, I don't think there would be any Christian who would be saved. But thankfully, these are not the things that determine whether we have eternal life or not.
This is not the reason John wrote this letter, and this is not the way he intended his letter to be understood, and this is not what his letter is teaching. There are tests in 1 John, but they are not tests for whether you have eternal life or not. The tests of 1 John are for whether you are in intimate fellowship with God and other Christians or not. This is the purpose of 1 John. To tell you how to have fellowship with other Christians and fellowship with God and fellowship with Jesus Christ. 1 John is not about how to get into a relationship with God, or how to know if you have eternal life, but is how to stay in fellowship. Now, maybe all this talk about relationship and fellowship has confused you. Maybe you never even realized there was a difference between the two. Maybe you never really thought about it.
This brings us to the third key to understanding 1 John. It's a simple thing. To understand 1 John, you must first understand the historical/cultural setting John was writing in. You must also make sure you have the correct reason for writing and theme of the letter. Thirdly though, make sure you use a dictionary.
3. Use a Dictionary
You see, there are several key terms in 1 John that over the centuries have become hopelessly muddled in the thinking and teaching of some Christians. The one that I just mentioned is the difference between relationship and fellowship. Did you know that in the Bible and in any dictionary you consult, the two words are not synonymous! There is a difference between having a relationship with someone and having fellowship with them.
fellowship: The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences. Friendship; comradeship.
relationship: The condition or fact of being related; Connection by blood or marriage; kinship.
Or think of it this way, there is a difference between being related to someone and living in fellowship with them. I have many cousins. I am related to them. But I think it has been 10 years or so since I have seen or talked to a single one of them. I do not have any fellowship with them. Similarly, some people are not on good terms with their parents. Oh, they are still related to their parents, but because of some disagreement or argument, or whatever, there is no longer any fellowship. The relationship still exists, but the fellowship has been severed. Husbands and wives are intimately related to one another. The Bible says they are one flesh. But when a wife lies to her husband, or when a husband cheats on his wife, it damages their fellowship. They will maybe get a separation or the husband will have to sleep on the couch, or they won't talk at meals, or they will never talk much at all. They still have a relationship because they are husband and wife, but they do not have any fellowship.
Similarly, when we believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life, we automatically and eternally become children of God. We pass from death unto life and we are joined forever into God's family. We enter into an eternal relationship with God and with Jesus Christ and with every other member of God's family. But when we gossip about other Christians, or treat other Christians in an unloving manner, it damages our fellowship with them. We avoid them at church or we stop coming to church. When we sin against God and do things we know we shouldn't, we sense that our fellowship with Him has been broken. Many people think that feeling of God being distant is that He has taken away our salvation, but that is not what it is. It's just that the fellowship lines are down. There is a barrier of sin in our communication.
This is why John talks in 1 John 1 about confessing our sins. When our sins are made known to us, we can either confess them and get restored into fellowship with God, or we can continue in sin, and stay out of fellowship with God. Sin does not damage our relationship with God, but it does great damage to our fellowship.
Here is a diagram on the internet I found which shows the difference very clearly. The diagram shows two spheres. When we believe in Jesus for eternal life, we enter into a relationship with God. It is an eternal relationship because we are part of God's family. Similarly, when we believe in Jesus, we immediately come into fellowship with God. The Bible calls this walking in the Spirit, or walking in the light. It is an intimate fellowship with God, with Jesus Christ and with all believers. But this fellowship is temporary. If we sin, we are no longer in fellowship and instead are living in carnality. 1 John calls it living or walking in darkness. The way to get back into fellowship with God is through confession. If you are going to understand 1 John, you must understand the difference between a relationship and ongoing fellowship. The whole book talks about how to have this ongoing fellowship.
Another term you must understand is the word "know." In English, the word "know" is used very frequently in 1 John, but in Greek, it is actually two different words. The two words are oida and gnosis. I won't get into the complexities of the two different words tonight. All I want to point out is that both words are translated "know" and neither word means what some people think it means. You see, in today's Christian lingo, some have equated the idea of knowing Christ with the idea of having eternal life in Christ.
And so some, when they go out to evangelize, ask the question, "Do you know Christ?" What an ambiguous statement that is! Almost everybody knows Christ, just like they know George W. Bush. They have heard of Jesus Christ, they know a little bit about Him and they think they know who He was and some of the basic events that happened in His life. That is the way the average person on the street thinks of knowing Christ. But then, when a person becomes a Christian, they often talk about their conversion as the time when they came to know Christ. How often have we heard people begin their testimonies by saying something like, "I came to know Christ when I was 14 years old?" But since when has the word "know" ever meant "saved"? Since when has the phrase "knowing Christ" ever meant "have eternal life".
In the Bible, and in all dictionaries, the word "know" means "to have an understanding of or to be familiar with." Especially in the Bible, the term "know" almost always speaks of an intimate, close fellowship with someone that is unlike any other kind of fellowship. It is used of a man knowing his wife on their marriage night. It is used of God knowing us in the sense that He knows our thoughts and attitudes of the heart. As far as I "know", nowhere in the Bible does the word "know" mean "to have eternal life."
So when we read in 1 John 2:4 that the one who claims to know Jesus Christ, but doesn't obey his commands is a liar, we should not read into this the idea that anybody who disobeys Christ is not saved. All it says is that they don't know Him. They don't have an intimate, close, day by day, fellowship with Jesus Christ. Those who are walking side by side with Christ, who are in communion with Christ, who love to think about and learn about Christ, who are in constant fellowship and interaction with Him, will, as a result of that close fellowship, obey Christ's commands.
1 John 2:4 simply means that those who claim to have close and intimate fellowship with Christ, but who don't do what Christ commands, are liars. And remember, this is exactly what the Gnostics were saying they could do. They were claiming to have this intimate and close fellowship with Christ in their spirits, but in their flesh, they could sin all they want. John is saying, "No you can't. If you really have that close fellowship with Christ, then you would know that your sin offends and saddens him. Nobody who knows Him and has a close fellowship with Him would say that they can sin all they want and it doesn't matter."
So to understand 1 John, you need to understand the word "fellowship" you need to understand the word "know" and finally, you need to understand the word "abide" or "remain" depending on your translation.
The definition of abide/remain is to stay, to continue, to endure, to wait for, to bear patiently, to withstand, to remain stable.
It is obvious, once we consider the definition, that there is nothing in the word about our relationship with Christ, but abiding in Christ is completely about our fellowship with Him. In the Bible, abiding in Christ is synonymous with continuing in fellowship with Him.
Think of abiding in Christ as living in a house. Imagine that Christ lives in a house across town, and He invites you to come live with Him in His house, in His abode. He'll cook your meals. He'll give you your own room. It's a good deal, so you agree. While you are living there, you are abiding with Christ. You are living with Christ. You are remaining with Christ. But one day, you bring a movie home that Christ doesn't want to watch with you, and because of the filth on the television screen, he has to leave the room. Well, you get mad, and storm out of the house taking a suitcase with you. You don't really have anywhere to go, so you sleep in your car for a few nights and go without showers. You are no longer abiding with Christ. You are living in your flesh. You are out of fellowship with Christ. But eventually, you end up agreeing that the movie was inappropriate, and you swallow your pride and go back and ask Jesus to forgive you and can you please move back into His house, He's going to say, "Of course you can. I sure did miss you while you were gone."
Abiding in Christ is almost identical to living in fellowship with Him. And 1 John talks a lot about how to abide in Christ. So with a correct understanding of a few key terms in 1 John, you are well on your way to correctly understanding it and applying it to your lives. One last key to understanding 1 John is to develop an outline.
4. Develop an Outline
This is much easier said than done. As I said earlier, I have 14 completely different outlines in my study. However, you can narrow the field down to just a few if you focus only on those that emphasize the theme and purpose of 1 John which is fellowship. I have included one of these outlines for you which comes from the Wycliffe Bible Commentary. I have found it helpful, and you might too.
I know I haven't explained many of the verses in 1 John in this study, but hopefully with these four keys, you can do some digging and studying on your own. Just understand this. We are saved, justified, given eternal life, and enter into a relationship by faith alone in Christ alone. John made that very clear in his Gospel. But in his epistles, in 1, 2 and 3 John, he wants to tell us how to go on to maturity, how to have ongoing fellowship and intimacy with Christ, how to live in fellowship with other believers, how to recognize and stand up against false teaching, how to really know Christ and have a deep, abiding, remaining fellowship with Him. That's what 1 John is all about.